The Middle: “Film, Friends and Fruit Pies”

Pity the poor patchwork quilt, viewed by some as a beautiful construction even as others are only capable of seeing an assortment of random pieces haphazardly sewn together. That’s not to suggest that this week’s episode of The Middle feels like such a thing, but…oh, hell, I can’t finish that sentence without feeling like a fraud: what we have on our hands is a catch-all installment, one that picks up past story threads for each of the three kids and throws in a token bit of action for Frankie and Mike, including a reference to Valentine’s Day that arrives so late in the proceedings that you can almost imagine someone running onto the set, waving a calendar and shouting, “Wait! Wait! This is airing on February 10! For God’s sake, we have to add something about Valentine’s Day!!!

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There’s not much way that an episode focusing on such disparate storylines (not to mention one where each storyline takes place on a set that looks completely different from the ones seen before and after it) can avoid coming across as a bit of a hodgepodge, but for those who arrive on the scene well-versed in what’s been happening lately on the series, it’s a highly rewarding affair.

First of all, let’s look at Axl’s situation. He’s still in the midst of his Little Betty internship and still struggling to some extent, and based on how his boss, Mr. Kershaw (guest star Alan Ruck), acted toward him when he was first introduced, there’s every reason to believe that the status quo is going to be maintained. Things change, however, when Axl unwittingly manages to offer up a side of himself that Kershaw likes, resulting in an unexpectedly tight relationship between the two men, if one that leaves Axl befuddled as to why Kershaw’s suddenly being so cool. As it turns out, there’s a reason for it: finances are in the toilet, but Kershaw hasn’t been able to tell anyone about it…until now. It’s a storyline that heads into slightly darker territory by the end of the episode, with Axl clearly startled by the realization that some of the offhanded remarks he made to Kershaw during his efforts to come off as cool have directly resulted in the closing of the entire fruit pie division, putting dozens of people out of work. Axl may not have made a dramatic transformation by the time the credits roll, but despite his best efforts, he seems to have learned a lesson from Kershaw: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Wait, was that the lesson? Maybe it was more along the lines of “the only thing worse that a friend becoming your boss is a boss becoming your friend.” Either way, it’s an unpleasant lesson, to be sure, but let’s hope that whichever one he picks proves to be a valuable one.

Next up we’ll tackle Brick’s story, which is easily the most ridiculous aspect of the episode yet also delivers some of the best laughs of the overall proceedings. You can tell things are going to get a little absurd from the moment that Brick’s torn on which classic achievement he should attempt to reproduce for his class: Battleship Potemkin or Knots Landing. He selects the latter, naturally, having devoured all 14 seasons worth of Betamax-recorded episodes from Aunt Edie’s personal collection, and for his male and female leads, he goes to his two closest friends: Cindy and Troy. It’s not that the plan is bad in and of itself, but what no one realized was that Brick was going to transform into the unholy spawn of Otto Preminger and Michael Bay as soon as he took over the directorial reins.

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Although Mike and Frankie can see that their son is becoming a terror, they decide to stay out of it until things reach a point where both Cindy and Troy opt to feign excuses to avoid having to work with Brick any longer. At a loss about the reason they’ve bailed out of the project, Brick finally gets the 4-11 from Frankie, who mentions that maybe it’s not fun for them anymore and reminds him that he doesn’t really have enough friends to be able to afford to alienate the few people who don’t mind hanging out with him. It’s a great ending to discover that Frankie’s remark is the exact same thing that the other two have been told by their parents, and it’s why he apologizes, they accept, and everyone goes off to get fries together.

Now it’s Sue’s turn. She’s gotten everything she ever wanted in a roommate and is so excited about the situation that she can hardly stand it, but she soon discovers that there’s one little hitch with her relationship with her roomie: Lexie is, for lack of a better word, “rich,” whereas Sue is near about as poor as the day is long. It’s not like there’s particularly a culture clash, but their disparate incomes come into play when Lexie starts buying things for their dorm room and just saying, “You can pay me your half later.” There’s a very sweet gesture at the heart of her actions, but Lexie just has no frame of reference to Sue’s economic situation, nor does she grasp just how much Sue’s had to give up or sell outright to pay for her half of the stuff.

Growing increasingly more stressed about the situation, Sue ventures back home to get some insight from Frankie and Mike, plus a little bit of extra cash to go with it, but her state of mind results in her spilling the beans about Lexie, at which point Mike lays down a little bit of Heck family wisdom: when making friends, always friend down rather than up, because if you friend up and start hanging out with rich friends, then eventually your normal life is suddenly going to seem even crappier than it already is. When Sue gets back to her dorm room and gets offered VIP tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming concert, she accepts and hears the hearty “just pay me your half whenever you can,” but finally Sue can’t take it anymore: she admits that she’s poor, that Lexie should probably get a roommate who’s on the same financial level as Frankie is, and she’s basically expecting to get the bum’s rush when Lexie erupts and says that she absolutely wants to stay roommates with Sue. It’s clear that the financial middle ground between them is a work in progress, but they’re clearly on the right track, given the sweet ending with them attending Taylor Swift’s concert by sitting in chairs outside the venue. That’s right: Lexie clearly could’ve gone the VIP ticket route, but she wanted to see the show with Sue. Could two young women possibly be more perfect pals? Surely not.

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Lastly, we’ve got the little Frankie and Mike story that more or less bookends the episode, with Frankie finding a foreign object in the carpet, spending the episode trying to figure out what it is, and when she finally realizes what it’s forth, she finds out that Mike’s thrown away the object. End result: Frankie demands that Mike’s punishment is that he’s now responsible for making good on a Valentine’s Day that would make her happy. Seriously, it’s a plot thread that really does feel like it was written on the night before filming, but it’s an important one to the episode in the long run, as it gives Frankie her closing narration, where she suggests that we’re all really just “random pieces lost in carpet of life, looking for where we fit.”

Sure, Frankie. Whatever works for you.

Stray observations:

  • “Why do you gotta turn everything into an excuse to hug me?”
  • Brick’s obsession with filming the perfect Knots Landing tribute was a storyline that probably wasn’t funny to those of you who didn’t grow up watching the long-running Dallas spin-off, but for my part, I’m hoping it leads to a complete-series set of the show.
  • I can’t have been the only one who was grinning when Lexie revealed that she’s also a dedicated reader of KickinItCollegeStyle.com. Sue’s bliss was radiating right off the TV screen.
  • “I might be willing to tuck up the flaps, but that’s it.”
  • “You know, Cindy, you can’t just coast because you’re the director’s girlfriend.” “Well, maybe I soon won’t be.” “There’s the sass I’m looking for!”
  • I was actually kind of creeped out by Axl being so stressed that his hair was actually coming out in clumps.
  • The only thing funnier than Sue specifically asking if gestating a child for another couple was a big commitment was the fact that Frankie’s only response was, “With all of your extracurriculars?”
  • I would argue that this episode featured one of the single best uses of Brad since the series began. It’s magic!

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The Goldbergs: “Lainey Loves Lionel”

If you didn’t hit puberty at some point in the early ‘80s, then you can’t fully grasp just how important it was for horny young lads to see Porky’s.

Oh, wait, I’m sorry: you can absolutely grasp it, because it’s the same level of importance that every horny young lad places on any film featuring prominently-placed boobs. What you have to remember, though, is that this was 1980-something, as the series calls it, and boobs on film weren’t nearly as easy to come by as they are with today’s wonderful era of online porn. Porky’s was a film that became a hit more or less by complete accident: word of mouth got around about its raunchiness, and once that word got to the teenage-boy demographic, the number of tickets to other films playing in the theater had a tendency to soar, as the boys would buy tickets to those films and then just sneak in to Porky’s. After that, of course, they’d have to deal with the ramifications of any guilt they might feel about their actions, but you’d be surprised how successfully one’s guilty conscience can be assuaged after one has seen bare breasts on the big screen.

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Mind you, I was no more successful at being a rebel than Adam Goldberg was. The only difference is that he went to see Annie, whereas I went to see Soggy Bottom U.S.A.

It’s an interesting dynamic this week: Bev is sticking to her guns and refusing to let Adam see this film filled with potty language, adult situations, and Florida attitude, but Murray feels like it’s time for Adam to stop being a wuss and do something even mildly rebellious for a change. Oh, sure, he freely admits that the casual, non-committal approach to parenting is more his forte, but this is one case where he feels strongly enough about the situation to step in and try to help Adam grow up and be a man by getting him to rebel.

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Adam completely and totally fails to do this, of course, having fallen into the trap of convincing himself that Murray is playing mind games on him when he tries to get him to take a few extra minutes to talk to Dana on the phone. Murray nonetheless continues to try and sell Adam on being a rebel, to the point of steering him into an open side door at the movie theater so that he can see Porky’s.But just as the movie’s about to start and he’s starting to feel like a man, guess who shows up at the front of the theater? Man oh man, Bev can really be a buzzkill sometimes. Case and point: she takes away Adam’s phone privileges, leaving him without a way to call her on Valentine’s Day.

It’s at this point when Adam, understandably grouchy about the way things have gone down up to this point, decides to swing for the fences with his next act of rebellion, buying his own plane ticket in order to visit Dana in person. It’s a bold move, make no mistake, but it’s one that puts him way outside of his comfort zone, forcing him to put on a performance that leaves him with little to no dignity but does at least manage to get him back to the terminal for parent pickup. His move was so bold as to make both Bev and Murray mad at him, but after they’ve had time to absorb the reasons behind his actions, they both realize that he really is becoming a man.

The other storyline of the week is Valentine’s Day-themed, split between Barry trying to impress Lainey by molding a clay bust of her head, a la the video for Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and Geoff trying to impress Erica by any possible means. Surprisingly, there are way more laughs and poignancy to be found in Geoff’s material than Barry’s, since there’s really only one joke with Barry, and that’s how excruciatingly bad each of his sculpture attempts turns out to be. Geoff, meanwhile, has been pining for Erica pretty much since the first time we ever met him, but he’s pulling out all the stops for Valentine’s Day, including sending her 100 roses, putting doves - sorry, white pigeons - in her locker, and even assuring her that he’s not going to pursue her anymore, theorizing that she’ll realize that she’s made a mistake and run into his arms. Unsurprisingly, this does not even remotely happen, although after Erica watches Lainey’s interactions with Barry and sees how she loves him because of the things he’s willing to do to show her how much he loves her, we do see her cutting a glance in Geoff’s direction, and so does Evelyn, who busts her on it.

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Which reminds me: I certainly hope that Allie Grant’s guest spot as Evelyn on this week’s episode is only the start of her appearances on the show, because if this is an isolated one, it felt like a bit of a waste. Not that she wasn’t great, but she ultimately had so little to do and was so far on the fringes of the goings-on that I was left wondering what the point was of her being there at all, aside from just being kind of cool. (Surely it wasn’t just to remind me how much I still miss Suburgatory.)

Between the Porky’s and Lionel Richie plotlines, this was definitely one of those episodes that probably played better for actual children of the ‘80s, but it was still an enjoyable installment.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t want to start down the road of reminiscing about my own Love-a-Gram experiences, but they nailed it: those things made the cool kids feel cooler and made the lonely goobers feel even lonelier.
  • Adam’s buddies’ post-Porky’s discussion was fantastic all around.
  • Carol Burnett: the Swiss Army Knife of Entertainment.
  • “They were safety scissors. And I liked about the jaywalking.”
  • “It looks like a bottle of Elmer’s Glue exploded in there!”
  • Pops was terribly underused this week, but at least he got in a couple of good lines about being the one in the trenches who’s actually doing the real fathering.
  • Don’t get me wrong about Barry’s material: it might’ve just been the one joke, but the joke was funny every time. Truly, his works were clay monstrosities.
  • Nice shirt, Adam. Team Banzai forever!

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